American Kestrel

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Is the American Kestrel right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: Sparrowhawk; Sparrow Hawk; American Sparrowhawk

Scientific name: Falco sparverius

The basics:
The smallest of the North American falcons, the captivating American Kestrel is a somewhat controversial bird. Perhaps because of its size and its natural tameness, it was once considered a beginner's bird, listed as a possible species for the apprentice falconer. However, it can represent some significant challenges, and most experts today advise against starting with this falcon.

Because of the licensing and expertise required to be a responsible owner of a bird of prey, the following information is offered only as a hint of what you will need to learn to work with American Kestrels. There is no substitute for hands-on training, which we strongly recommend that you pursue before trying to acquire any bird of prey.

The American Kestrel is the widespread, highly visible kestrel of the New World. The most abundant falcon in North America, it also holds a large range in South America. Some populations migrate, so if you have ever noticed that you see a lot more Kestrels in your area in the winter, then now you know why. Females tend to migrate first so that they may claim more open territories. Males come later and, being smaller, may find themselves pushed into more wooded areas. You might find the name Sparrow Hawk in older literature, but don't use the name yourself. It's rightfully falling into disuse, since the name Sparrowhawk properly refers to a group of unrelated species – and the American Kestrel is more of an insectivore than a bird predator anyway.

These beautiful longwings have two black moustache marks accenting bold white cheeks. The males are smaller and especially well-marked, with a rufous back and tail. Females are a larger, faded version of the theme.

Male - 109 grams (3.8 oz.)
Female - 123 grams (4.3 oz.)

Average Size:
Male - 24 centimeters (9 in.)
Female - 25 centimeters (10 in.)

7 - 10 years

Behavior / temperament:
American Kestrels have powerful feet for their size, and well-trained birds are highly regarded for being willing to pursue their quarry under cover and to grab on. A skilled suburban falconer, without access to open country, can fly an American Kestrel in places where a Merlin or another falcon wouldn't work. If you have ever observed a wild Kestrel kiting -- hovering in the sky in search of prey – then you can understand why some falconers value this species for its ability to learn to “wait on” quarry while hovering.

However, be warned: This slimmer species seems to like to conserve its energy, and some tame individuals have proved to be unwilling to hunt. In his classic, A Falconry Manual, Frank L. Beebe expressed some exasperation when he wrote, “Kestrels are less of a beginner falcon than a delightful pet falcon for an eight to twelve year old.” Of course, we don't recommend the species to eight year olds. But it's always possible that you might find yourself with a rather lazy bird.

Although a smaller falcon, the American Kestrel is still a longwing and should not be shortchanged on space to spread its wings. A good pen, aviary, or mews will provide shade from direct sunlight in the summer, protection from extremes of winter weather, and good security to lock out thieves. A roof that completely covers the structure is stronger and offers more protection from high winds. Like most birds of prey, they will enjoy some clean, shallow water for bathing.

The American Kestrel is a carnivore that needs to consume some whole prey in order to allow its digestive system to work properly. In the wild, this species is quite insectivorous, pursuing a lot of large insects like grasshoppers and dragonflies. Falconers tend to train them to pursue small birds like House Sparrows or European Starlings, and they have been kept successfully on a diet that includes such items as mice and small birds, supplemented by grasshoppers. With smaller falcons, you need an excellent scale and the training to understand what their weight should be and what to do about it – something you should get from hands-on experience with a more advanced falconer or rehabilitator, not from a short article. They should also be provided with water.

Written by Elaine Radford


good beginner bird, wildlife rehabilitator, limber fliers, master falconer, vivid feather patterns

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